If you’re struggling to recall if you’ve ever had authentic Venezuelan food, you’re not alone.
That’s one of the reasons Mariangela Tirelli says her family decided to open up Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen in the U-District last year.
On a first approach to the seafoam green cottage you might assume it’s someone’s house. But then you see the sign hanging above with the tagline “Healthy Caribbean Food.”
Once inside the Venezuelan memorabilia mixed in amongst the tables, and a fireplace and TV set up in the back add to this homey atmosphere.
“We used to live in Venezuela, and because of the situation we decided to move here,” said Tirelli, whose parents joined another Venezuelan couple in the business venture. “They saw that here there is a big community of Venezuelans, and they saw that there’s no Venezuelan restaurants so they said, ‘let’s have one.’”
The name comes from the Venezuelan dish, arepas, which Tirelli explained is the daily bread back in Venezuela. Arepas are eaten with nearly every meal, she explained. They’re essentially corn cakes filled with a variety of fillings like meat and beans.
I tried the reina pepiada arepa which is filled with a chicken avocado salad. It was delicious paired with the warm arepa bread. The arepa itself reminded me of my mom’s gorditas — a similar type of corncake that comes from Mexico.
“This is not a normal Venezuelan restaurant; you’re not going to find all the dishes we have in Venezuela. We focus on the arepas,” said Tirelli.
If you’re new to the world of arepas, Tirella recommends trying the pabelon, which is Venezuela’s national dish.
“It has beans, beef, cheese and plantains, so you get to try everything in one bite,” said Tirelli.
Other than Mariners star Felix Hernandez, the Venezuelan community in the Northwest keeps a pretty low profile. It’s tough to gage how big exactly it is, though a community Facebook group has about 600 members.
But in the short time they’ve been around, Arepa has won many of them over. Jose Carruyo, who was born in Venezuela but now resides in Eastern Washington, says he makes the five hour journey both ways from Spokane just for a taste of home.
“Every time I visit Seattle I look for Venezuelan food, so far La Arepa Kitchen has been the best,” said Carruyo. “Besides the food, the owner is a really nice guy who’s also from Venezuela. It’s a nice place.”
Tirelli says her favorite part of working in the restaurant is being able to introduce non-Venezuelans to the food for the first time.
“You know, many people come here, they are not from Venezuela but they like to try Venezuelan food and they really like it,” said Tirelli. “They are very curious about the arepas. They’re like, ‘Wow, this bread is really good, and it’s gluten free!’”
Venezuelan food is a little different from other Caribbean cuisines because it has a lot of European influences — especially Italian, Spanish and French — mixed in with the indigenous and African influences. Tirelli noted that the food is healthy, which is one of the reasons so many people like it.
First time customer Jessica Carranza-Duncan and her husband, who were visiting Seattle from their home near the Canadian border, said the food was amazing.
“I grew up in Colombia and then Florida so I grew up around this type of food,” said Carrranza-Duncan “We need to have more places like this. I mean, people don’t really know about this type of food. There’s a lot of Mexican restaurants everywhere, but you don’t necessarily find Venezuelan places close by.”
While the restaurant specializes in arepas, they also make empanadas, tequenos, flan, tres leches cake and fresh juices.
“It’s homemade food. We all work here: me, my dad, mom, Felix and his wife,” said Tirelli, “so it’s like a little house where we make food for everybody.”
Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen is at 1405 NE 50th St, right next to the Grand Illusion Cinema